Defensive tackle Bilal Nichols enters his second training camp with the Las Vegas Raiders with something to prove. After signing a two-year, $11 million contract as a free agent during the 2022 offseason, Nichols’ first year with the Raiders was a disappointment.
He had logged eight sacks and 12 tackles for loss during his previous two seasons with the Chicago Bears, picking up five and seven in 2020 and three and five in 2021, only to be held to just one and a half quarterback takedowns and four TFL a year ago in Las Vegas.
The latter figures were the second-fewest in his five years as a professional as he was blanked for sacks and had one tackle for loss in 2019, however, he also only played in 13 games during that campaign.
Additionally, while Nichols did have his third consecutive season with at least 30 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, his efficiency as a pass-rusher dropped significantly. Last year, he logged exactly 30 pressures on 465 opportunities which comes out to a ratio of one every 15.5 snaps as a rusher. In the two years prior, he was getting to the quarterback at rates of one per every 12.1 and 10.7 opportunities.
Head coach Josh McDaniels has talked ad nauseam about how he wants the defense to be more disruptive this season and the defensive tackles’ numbers above simply aren’t good enough to accomplish that goal. After Tuesday’s practice, Nichols was asked about how he can create disruption and be part of the solution to the problem McDaniels has called out.
“Just doing my technique to the best of my ability and being a factor on each and every play,” the defensive tackle replied. “We have great coaches here, we have great players, you just got to trust the training and the technique. If you trust your training and technique, you will be disruptive and you’ll make an impact on that play. And that’s just doing that on a consistent basis every single play.”
Nichols mentions the coaching staff which, obviously, plays a big factor in a player’s performance. At this time last year, everyone in the Raiders’ building was learning a new system as defensive coordinator Patrick Graham—and the majority of the staff as a whole—was entering his first season with the Silver and Black.
In year two, Graham’s unit can hit the ground running as several of his key defenders are back, including Nichols and the majority of the defensive line. That continuity is something Nichols thinks will pay dividends for him and the rest of the line.
“Definitely have more comfort with the more experience that you have with something. That’s definitely something that helps a lot, so it definitely feels good to come into year two and kind of know what to expect a little bit more,” the veteran pass-rusher explained. “And just knowing Pat better, knowing how he likes to call things, knowing what he may be thinking in certain situations just so we all can be on the same page. I think that’s huge.”
Individually, Nichols did some self-reflection this offseason on how he can improve in year two with the Raiders and shined some light on what he emphasized during his training over the last several months.
“Just really training on my mental and my physical [skills],” Nichols said. “Just getting my body where I wanted it to be and just training on things that I observed that I could’ve been better at last year. Always as an athlete, your goal is just trying to make those things that you feel like you need to get better at [and turn them into] strengths. So, that’s pretty much what I focused on this offseason.”
Nichols entered training camp as one of the team’s two projected starting defensive tackles, however, his standing is far from written in stone. Young players like Matthew Butler, Neil Farrell Jr., Byron Young and Nesta Jade Silvera are looking to make a name for themselves and are vying for the six-year veteran’s spot on the depth chart.
As mentioned above, Nichols didn’t do enough last year to take it easy and have a worry-free camp as the pressure is on for him to produce. So, we’ll find out soon if he was working on the right things and improved enough during the offseason.
Otherwise, he could be on the way to another down season, riding the bench this time and watching the youngsters be disruptive.